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Page last updated at 11:03 GMT, Tuesday, 10 August 2010 12:03 UK
Birdwatching after The Beautiful South

By Tom Bateman
Today programme

Dave Rotheray in his garden
Sweet sounds: Dave Rotheray in his garden

A debilitating illness left The Beautiful South guitarist Dave Rotheray stuck staring out of his window. The birdsong he heard inspired an album.

Twenty years ago, Dave Rotheray's lifestyle was very different. It was the height of success for his band The Beautiful South and, as co-songwriter and guitarist, Rotheray was living the musical dream.

The 27-year-old from Hull with his long swept-back hair was living in London's top hotels and meeting A-list celebrities as the group toured radio and TV studios.

They were on the verge of their first number one with the lyrically bitter-sweet single A Little Time.

"Travelling around the world with a bunch of friends on a bus and everything's free. You can't really beat that, can you?" recalls Rotheray.

"It's quite hard to come back to normal life after 20 years of that."

But normal life eventually caught up with him.

Garden view

Sixteen years on, back home on Humberside with The Beautiful South finally winding down, Dave Rotheray was struck down by Meniere's disease - an inner ear disorder that affects hearing, balance and can cause vertigo.

It was to leave him confined to a chair for weeks at a time, with little to do but stare out at the trees.

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"I was trying to spot birds as a break from song writing," he tells me as we walk around his generous back garden in a leafy suburb of Hull.

"The sparrow and the thrush just jumped into my head.

"Once the sparrow and the thrush and the nightingale had got in, the other birds started sneaking in as well. And the bees sneaked in. And the squirrel who lives in the garage sneaked in," he says, laughing.

Rotheray, now 47, could hardly have expected sudden infection and amateur ornithology to have such an influence over his creative work.

"Birds worked their way into the songs by themselves.

"They became the dominant metaphor in all the songs without me really meaning them to.

"I was intending to write an album that was a sort of Rake's Progress - looking back at a man's life through the different stages.

"The birds just worked their way in and the man just got gradually displaced."

Garden birdsong, a guitar and several months later, Dave Rotheray had written an entire album's worth of modern folk music inspired by birding.

Birdsong split

Rotheray's own life is clearly reflected in The Life of Birds.

The album opens and closes with two versions of the same song - The Sparrow and the Thrush and the Nightingale - an allegory berating greed in the music industry.

"It was a song about capitalism and selling music," he says.

"I've always felt uncomfortable about putting the words 'music' and 'business' together.

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"I was thinking about the fact that birds sing for free, and I imagined the birds trying to sell their music to a record company or a publishing company."

In the song, a sparrow, a thrush and a nightingale are signed up by a record company to sell their songs.

"They fall out," explains Rotheray.

"The nightingale wants more money than the other two so they have a big fight and the band splits up".

It's a bloody affair, with feathers strewn on the forest floor and "from the trees there was ne'er a sound" say the lyrics.

But, 20 years after Rotheray's peak of fame, the dominant theme of his album is that of ageing, and dealing with the challenges of moving through life.

He says the birds provide a symbol for the repeating cycles of a man's existence.

"Birds are representative of the seasons," he says.

"They fall quite naturally into a metaphor for ageing because they come around again every year and they seem exactly the same, but you're a year older."

Sweet forgetfulness

Rotheray also writes about dealing with Alzheimer's disease in the album, which he says affected his own family.

"I wrote a song called Sweet Forgetfulness which was taking a positive look at it.

"Good memories can be a bit depressing because they remind you of better times. So I was reflecting that maybe it's good to lose your memory as you get older."

Suddenly the birdsong in Rotheray's garden seems to get a little louder.

The musician is teasing the wrens and blue tits using recorded birdsong on the loudspeaker of his mobile phone.

Some of the birds actually sing back.

Dave Rotheray's The Life of Birds is released on 16 August.

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